- The Chorus movie (2004) review: Officially inspired by Noël-Noël’s A Cage of Nightingales, but owing as much to later fare like To Sir with Love and Madame Sousatzka, Christophe Barratier’s feature debut – and major commercial hit in its native France – is an old-fashioned, shamelessly sentimental crowd-pleaser.
The Chorus movie: Christophe Barratier’s sentimental + old-fashioned audience-pleaser
A gigantic hit in France, Christophe Barratier’s feature film debut, The Chorus / Les choristes, is the most recent cinematic incarnation of that age-old theme: The dedicated teacher who, through firmness, kindness, and understanding – mostly kindness and understanding – tames the savage hearts of his/her pupils. In addition to these qualities, the boarding-school teacher in Barratier’s The Chorus movie also brings music into the lives of his students.
Not coincidentally, the music teacher played by Gérard Jugnot in The Chorus is reminiscent of the one played by actor/co-screenwriter Noël-Noël in Jean Dréville’s A Cage of Nightingales / La cage aux rossignols back in 1945. That’s because The Chorus is a de facto remake – with the action changed from the early 1930s to the late 1940s – of the real-life-inspired and Best Original Story Academy Award-nominated drama.
And that’s how the power of music – more specifically, the power of choir singing – saves a rowdy bunch of future bank robbers, corrupt politicians, and serial killers from myriad fates worse than death, much to the delight of audiences hungry for a large serving of cotton-candy cinema with powdered sugar sprinkled all over it.
Power of Music
Barratier’s The Chorus movie begins with two middle-aged men, the renowned French conductor Pierre Morhange (Jacques Perrin, who also co-produced) and an old friend, Pépinot (Didier Flamand), as they’re brought together by the death of their old music teacher. Before you can say flashback, they start reminiscing about their days at a rural boarding school for boys.
In 1949, the unemployed music teacher Clément Mathieu (Jugnot) arrives at the strangely named school Fond de l’Étang (“Bottom of the Pond”) to work as a teacher-cum-supervisor. The students are a bunch of quasi-murderous hooligans who, according to the school’s strict disciplinarian headmaster Rachin (François Berléand), will learn to behave themselves only if they’re either beaten with a stick or put in solitary confinement. Preferably, both.
Mathieu, however, thinks otherwise. Although he has been warned that the boys are monsters who just happen to look like human beings, he takes a liking to them, becoming particularly fond of the gifted, angelic-looking Pierre (Les Petits Chanteurs de Saint-Marc choir singer Jean-Baptiste Maunier) and the young orphan Pépinot (Maxence Perrin, Jacques Perrin’s real-life son), who every weekend waits in vain at the gate for a visit from his parents.
After he began teaching the boys to sing, Mathieu finds himself mesmerized by Pierre’s heavenly voice. The boys, for their part, learn to trust and respect their teacher. The inevitable problems arise when Rachin begins feeling threatened by Mathieu’s success, especially when a singularly troublesome youth arrives at the school.
Guess who eventually comes out on top.
Right directorial touch & top-notch acting missing
For treacle like this to –at least partially – work, one of several elements must be present:
- A screenplay featuring humor/wit and/or pathos, such as Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s for John Schlesinger’s more personalized Madame Sousatzka, in which Shirley MacLaine stars as a private tutor.
- One or more solid performances: Examples include MacLaine as the tutorial Madame and Meryl Streep’s real-life violin teacher Roberta Guaspari in Music of the Heart.
- The right directorial touch; e.g., Tay Garnett’s in the charmingly nostalgic Cheers for Miss Bishop, starring a pitch-perfect Martha Scott.
- A singing/crying Lulu (“A friend who taught me right from wrong…”) as seen/heard in James Clavell’s To Sir with Love, starring a bad karma’ed Sidney Poitier (see Blackboard Jungle) as an immigrant teacher teaching social etiquette to lowlives at an East London school.
Unfortunately, MacLaine, Streep, Scott, and Lulu are nowhere to be seen (or heard) in The Chorus movie, while Barratier’s direction and screenplay (co-written with Philippe Lopes-Curval) proudly replace wit and pathos with juvenile antics and bathos.
And that’s why this musicalized Au prof, avec amour will appeal only to those who like their movies dripping with syrup. Now, considering The Chorus‘ blockbuster status in a number of countries, there are millions of such filmgoers out there. Those will surely not be disappointed.
If you’re one of them, just make sure to check your blood-sugar level once the final credits start rolling.
The Chorus / Les choristes (2004)
Director: Christophe Barratier.
Screenplay: Christophe Barratier & Philippe Lopes-Curval.
Inspired by the 1945 motion picture A Cage of Nightingales / La cage aux rossignols, written by Georges Chaperot (story), Noël-Noël, and René Wheeler.
Cast: Gérard Jugnot. François Berléand. Jean-Baptiste Maunier. Kad Merad. Marie Bunel. Jacques Perrin. Maxence Perrin. Didier Flamand. Grégory Gatignol. Thomas Blumenthal. Jean-Paul Bonnaire. Cyril Bernicot. Simon Fargeot. Théodule Carré-Cassaigne. Philippe du Janerand.
Cinematography: Jean-Jacques Bouhon, Dominique Gentil, and Carlo Varini. Film Editing: Yves Deschamps. Music: Bruno Coulais. Production Design: François Chauvaud. Producers: Arthur Cohn, Nicolas Mauvernay, and Jacques Perrin.
“The Chorus movie” notes
Highest-paid French actor
 According to Jean-Yves Guérin and Léna Lutaud’s Figaro Enterprises article “L’Argent des Acteurs,” The Chorus movie actor and associate producer Gérard Jugnot earned €5.45 million (approx. $6.8 million) in 2004, making him the best paid French actor that year. (Jean Reno was the runner-up.) A large chunk of that money came from Jugnot’s participation in The Chorus.
As per L’Express, as a result of several contractual agreements Jugnot will have to wait about 10 years to receive the total amount of his earnings.
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The Chorus movie cast and crew information via Cineuropa and other sources.
Gérard Jugnot and Jean-Baptiste Maunier The Chorus movie images: Pathé Distribution.
“The Chorus Movie: Movie: Unabashedly Sentimental + Old-Fashioned Crowd-Pleaser” last updated in February 2021.